The Battle Over Homework

Louis Menand, essayist and editor for The New Yorker, and author of the brilliant book The Metaphysical Club, reports that French president François Hollande intends to abolish homework in his country. He takes this opportunity to look at some research on whether homework has any benefit to students, then pulls back to the bigger picture:

Like a lot of debates about education, what Cooper calls “the battle over homework” is not really about how to make schools better. It’s about what people want schools to do. The country with the most successful educational system, according to the Economist study, is Finland. Students there are assigned virtually no homework; they don’t start school until age seven; and the school day is short. It is estimated that Italian children spend a total of three more years in school than Finns do (and Italy ranked twenty-fourth).

The No. 2 country in the world, on the other hand, is South Korea, whose schools are notorious for their backbreaking rigidity. Ninety per cent of primary-school students in South Korea study with private tutors after school, and South Korean teen-agers are reported to be the unhappiest in the developed world. Competition is so fierce that the government has cracked down on what are called private “crammer” schools, making it illegal for them to stay open after 10 P.M. (though some attempt to get around this by disguising themselves as libraries).

Yet both systems are successful, and the reason is that Finnish schools are doing what Finns want them to do, which is to bring everyone up to the same level and instill a commitment to equality, and South Korean schools are doing what South Koreans want, which is to enable hard workers to get ahead. When President Hollande promises to end homework, make the school day shorter, and devote more teachers to disadvantaged areas, he is saying that he wants France to be more like Finland. His reforms will work only if that is, in fact, what the French want.

I recommend the whole thing (which is not long), and anything else by Menand you can get lay your eyes on.

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